ArtsATL > Books > Q&A: Jo Baker fills in “downstairs” story of Austen classic, creating a world of its own

Q&A: Jo Baker fills in “downstairs” story of Austen classic, creating a world of its own

jo-bakerJo Baker’s novel Longbourn is a captivating recrafting of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Told from the perspective of Sarah, Elizabeth Bennet’s maid (Pride and Prejudice’s protagonist), Longbourn plunges readers into the vibrant world of Regency England. If Austen’s novel dances with social gossip and breathless anticipation of a happy marriage, Longbourn thrums with the work and sacrifice that makes that wealthy world operate.

Sarah’s life is confined to the bustling buildings of Longbourn, the home of the Bennets. Her life brims with dirty laundry, sewing needles and dirty plates. As she watches the Bennet sisters maneuver themselves toward marriage or gossip about other wealthy families, Sarah tidies their bedrooms and wonders if this drudgery is all life has to offer. Enter Ptolemy Bingley, the African servant of the Bingleys, the newest — and wealthiest — family in the neighborhood. As news about the Bingleys, and their marriageable son, fills Longbourn, Sarah’s mind floods with images of Ptolemy, whose worldly adventures shine bright next to her dismal housework. As she falls in love with Ptolemy and the life he promises her, she is forced to assess her real hopes and dreams.

Longbourn is no mere retelling of Austen’s classic. Baker creates a separate and engaging world, replete with social, historical and domestic details that Austen left out. The result is an engrossing and complementary story that enhances Pride and Prejudice as much as it dazzles on its own.

Baker will speak at the Margaret Mitchell House at 7 p.m., July 17.

ArtsATL: Readers have long wondered why historical issues — the Napoleonic Wars, colonialism — were not more often included in Jane Austen’s novels. Was it always your intention to provide the details that Austen did not?

Jo Baker: I think of Longbourn as a “reading” of Pride and Prejudice. All the historical background comes out of Austen’s novel, and I kept stumbling upon tiny clues in the text, tiny phrases that fascinated me. I kept picking away at these clues until something opened up, and I found myself stepping through the text into the world beyond. For example, Mr. Bingley (Senior) is described being in “trade in the north.” This probably meant the Triangular Trade, of sugar, tobacco, and slaves, out of Liverpool or Lancaster in northern England. This is what Charles Bingley’s fortune is based on. Another similar clue was Lydia’s comment about a soldier being flogged at Meryton, the town near Longbourn. This set me thinking about the militia and the reality of soldiering during that period. The clues were all there in Jane Austen’s novel. I just unpicked phrases and followed the threads.

longbournArtsATL: Why did you choose Pride and Prejudice?

Baker: It emerged organically. I’m a lifelong fan of Austen. I’ve been reading and rereading her books since I was 12 years old. But I’ve also always known that members of my family were in domestic service. Though I’d love to think of myself in Elizabeth Bennet’s shoes, the reality is that I would have cleaned them. I wouldn’t have worn them. Because of my personal history, there was a disjunction between my love for the books and the world they portray — and the knowledge that I didn’t quite belong in that world.

But, that’s about as far as it would have gone, if I hadn’t gotten stuck on a line in Pride and Prejudice and discovered that a story was starting to emerge. In the novel, before the scene at the Netherfield ball, the weather is dreadful. None of the Bennet sisters has any intention of venturing out of doors, and so “the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by Proxy.” I thought: Who’s Proxy? I began to wonder about her life and experiences, how she felt, for example, about going out in the filthy weather to fetch decorations and other women’s dancing shoes. I began to contextualize these questions and find answers within the historical period, with research into the servants’ lives and backgrounds. The whole novel flowed from there.

ArtsATL: As you created your story, how did you decide what to include from Pride and Prejudice and what to leave out?

Baker: I think with this, as with any other work of fiction, you set yourself rules and constraints and you work within them. If you later decide to break the rules, then you have to be judicious about it. Point of view was a key issue here. My characters could only know what they witnessed or experienced, or what could be reasonably supposed to have been understood. Within this framework, it was a simple method of deciding what to include and what to omit.

ArtsATL: “Upstairs/downstairs” stories, such as Downton Abbey, are wildly popular. Your novel, told from the perspective of Elizabeth Bennet’s maid, follows this theme. Why do you think this topic holds so much interest?

Baker: It has to do with power, I think, different kinds of power that operate in different ways. There’s an enforced intimacy between master and servant, coupled with a distance that can never be fully resolved. That’s fascinating.

ArtsATL: What do you think Jane Austen would say about Longbourn?

Baker: I honestly don’t know, and I have to say, it bothered me. I used to make jokes about spending the hereafter hiding in a cupboard. Recently, someone suggested that, since Jane Austen described her books as her children, we could perhaps consider Longbourn one of her grandkids. I love that notion.

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